Update: LGM’s Album Of The Year here
2012. Another clock hand flickers, another outlet of dubious provenance peddles an end-of-year album list. Even placing ubiquity aside for the moment, it’s easy to be cynical about these kind of things. To quote American novelist Harry Ramble, the flaw endemic with best-of collections is the propensity to:
…cite the same items in minutely varying order. The consensus has already been arrived at and no one’s varying from it one iota’s worth. This state of affairs is endemic to the institution even when the time frame being considered is fairly large (the #4 record of the Rock Era is always My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, the #23 record is always the Replacements’ Let It Be). Compress the time span being considered to twelve months and what have you got? Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear.”
It’s a view not exactly difficult to subscribe to. The curls of hype and a hive-mind, hipster self-importance – they’ve long had their claws in this type of carry on. To the point where any ranking feels less like a celebration of whatever year’s music than the desperate urge to be seen as relevant, as somehow influential. And maybe I’m just as bad, ploughing ahead with my own best-of list because… well, that’s what music blogs do, and I lack the wherewithal to interpret 2012 in any other fashion.
In my defence, neither Dirty Projectors nor Grizzly Bear (or for British readers: Tame Impala, Frank Ocean and Grizzly Bear) have made the cut. In fact, there’s not a great deal of synergy between the LGM cluster and any other list that’s been so enthusiastically daubed across its preferred medium (some records don’t appear anywhere else at all). Oh well; perhaps I didn’t get the memo. Or maybe I’m wired into too idiosyncratic a vogue – that Grizzly Bear album really didn’t press any buttons. I’d much rather listen to The Rip Tide by Beirut, my Album Of The Year from 2011. Or any of those listed below; #10 through to #2 tonight, then followed by my (forensic) take on the definite disc of 2012 in a day or two. Enjoy.
#10. Stealing Sheep / Into The Diamond Sun
File under folk. Or harmonic retro-pop. Or delicious, tribal, off-kilter, medieval femme electronica. Because records that defy categorisation have a beauty all of their own – especially when as sublimely crafted as Stealing Sheep’s second album. The attraction here is derived from a lightness of touch; a delightful fleet-footed quality in which the musical references are simultaneously traditional and knowingly contemporary. The nods and winks are intentionally subtle; this is no hipster disc over-reliant upon vogue or playing to the gallery; instead, the space where the headline grabbing would have sat is occupied by a strength of songcraft, the double and triple harmonies seguing with the restrained instrumentation and distinctive percussion in a most enchanting fashion. In a just and proper world, this album would be huge.
Stealing Sheep / Shut Eye
Stealing Sheep / Genevieve
#9. Miaoux Miaoux / Light Of The North
It’s always such a pleasure to encounter a synth-pop record that ripples with intelligence, that bounces upon its heels as if immune to the proclivities of senseless trend. An album whose uplifting qualities are natural, easy, almost effortless, gifting time and space for the subtleties of sensuality – think Unrest by Erlend Øye or Give Up by The Postal Service. And whilst Light Of The North, the self-produced label début by multi-instrumentalist Julian Corrie, is no mirror image of the aforementioned, there are similar tones and textures, shared melodic traits woven across the templates of electronica (A summer’s worth of hooks, I wrote in my notebook upon hearing this for the first time).
The influence is discernibly ’80’s, both in the sweetness of vocalisation and the shiny plastic bricks added together in the cause of song. But there’s also enough contemporary bleeps and buzzes to give this a very clean, modern sheen (not to mention quite the dirty bass track to catch you unawares). And above all else, Corrie pulls off that all too rare trick of making such a hectic soundtrack appear totally unfussy; it’s an album that reveals itself in phased enrapture. More of this kind of thing.
Miaoux Miaoux / Better For Now (Soundcloud link)
Miaoux Miaoux / Autopilot (Soundcloud link)
#8. The Pre-New / Music For People Who Hate Themselves
Strange times. Vacuity is the new currency. To turn on the television is to be saturated by wave after wave of self-congratulatory piffle. To open a newspaper or magazine is to experience the constant hum of cultural and socio-economic flatulence – where everything’s all right forever so long as we’re good consumers and remember to once in a while complain about how much tax we’re paying.
And whilst it’s always been so, 2012 was in many ways a particularly nauseous example of a twelve month period. War, want, economic carnage. A cavalcade of corporate clusterfuckery disguised as sporting events, punctuated by ardent deference to all things touched by monarchy. In other words, this year has been crying out for a record such as Music For People Who Hate Themselves. An album that grabs the year by its smug and complacent lapels, then proceeds to shake things up. The sound’s loud and brash and swaggering, the lyrical constructs owing much to situationist sloganeering and a deliciously curmudgeonly art school expressionism, highly reminiscent of 90’s sonic provocateurs Earl Brutus – which isn’t surprising, considering four of this sextet were in Earl Brutus. This all means that the band’s average age may be creeping up to (or lounging past) the wrong side of fifty, yet there’s still the same slanted, gleeful degree of energy, the jaded agit-pop of lead track ‘Cathedral City Comedown’ sounding as dangerous as it is does beguiling. In fact the only downside to this is that, despite be prompted, they still haven’t released this album on vinyl. What a bunch of bourgeois bastards.
The Pre New / Cathedral City Comedown
The Pre New / Albion, You’ve Done Nothing Wrong
#7. Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury / Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega City One
As far as futurescape dystopias go, I could point you in far more rewarding directions than the backdrop to Judge Dredd’s summary comic book justice. But do not let this record’s subtitle put you off. The same can be said for preconceptions behind any collaboration between Barrow (one third of Portishead) and Salisbury (Emmy Award-winning soundtrack composer); you know this is going to be a cinematically widescreen affair, yet Drokk is never going to be picked up by TV producers searching for musical accompaniment for their slo-mo orcas diving in the waters off British Columbia – this record is (thankfully) far too clever for that.
Instead: a bold suite of stripped-back, analogue-styled electronica, in which traces of John Carpenter soundtracks, Wendy Carlos expressions, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop all keep cropping up. And – again defying expectations of something big and symphonically-minded – only four of the sixteen tracks breach the four minute mark. This creates a distinctive impression of Mega City One. Somewhere disjointed, disorientating, cloaked in sinister motifs. Just like the real urban environment, then.
Drokk / Justice One
Drokk / Exhale
#6. Spiritualized / Sweet Heart Sweet Light
I reviewed this back in April – and my opinion hasn’t dramatically shifted. I think it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t J Spaceman at his ’90’s peak. The trademark vocal fragility feels as if it’s nudging towards the frail. There are moments – particularly on the more introspective tracks – where that elemental spark we’ve grown so dependent upon feels filtered down, an implication of career retrospective in place of the highly evocative transepts of the back catalogue. And yet any Spiritualized record can feel like an epiphany – even this far into the journey. ‘Get What You Deserve’ and ‘Heading For The Top’ are simply fucking beautiful – mesmerising, enigmatic, the word AFFIRMING strafed across your soul in capital letters…
…or so it says here. I shouldn’t over-expose my interest in this; there’s (at least) five “better” records than Sweet Heart Sweet Light. If this kind of thing floats your flotilla, read my original article. Or better still, listen to the record – we’ll carry on into the top five whilst you’re otherwise occupied.
Spiritualized / Hey Jane
Spiritualized / Get What You Deserve (YouTube link)
#5. TOY / TOY
Because convention is so over-rated. At the beginning of the year, this London five-piece re-released début single ‘Left Myself Behind’ (the original 2011 pressing of 100 copies sold out in a day). It’s a magical and arresting seven-plus minutes, full of the shimmer that is sonic pouting and jangly guitars – and that’s even before the 120 seconds’ worth of outro that’s simply to die for.
So what do the band chose to do with the follow-up début album? Ignore the one song that trapped our attention so severely, that’s what. And I love the fact that TOY are confident enough to shun conventional music wisdom by consigning one of their most alluring tracks to the relative obscurity of a single-only release. It displays such faith in the material that is present. A progressive sightline that slots neatly into the wealth of intelligent psychedelic / shoegaze / indie influences all blended astutely into the aesthetic. Thus: a finely-pinioned sound full of fuzzy depths, glazed ennui, Tom Dougal’s deadpan delivery. Vigour that never has to try to be so. The type of LP – intimate yet expansive – in which the suitable adjective is: triumph.
TOY / Motoring
TOY / Dead And Gone
#4. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra / Theatre Is Evil
First the disclaimer; I’m not a natural fit when it comes to Amanda Palmer. Saw her live a year or two back, an experience that reinforced certain hostile perceptions – the Weimar cabaret shtick, the cloying fan-base, the uncontextual nudity, proclamations of female empowerment executed in a glitzy, over-the-top fashion, thus detracting from the relevance of message.
This passive alienation – something I’m certainly not alone in picking up on – it loiters around the back catalogue, the Dresden Dolls records, the solo stuff and collaborations and cover versions, to the point where expectations towards Theatre Is Evil didn’t register.
How wrong I was.
Because whilst this record struts and preens and calls, it’s no mere peacock or popinjay content to appeal on looks alone. Rather, there’s a refined and distinguished exploration of mood going on, honest and tender at times, strident and effervescent at others. Both cynical and wide-eyed, energetic and louche, and all of it pinioned to an utterly engaging early ’80’s new wave New York vibe; there are so many significant moments where you expect to open your eyes to find yourself at CBGBs; The Ramones have just been on, and Blondie are next on stage.
Don’t believe me? There’s a triptych of songs early on – ‘The Killing Type’, ‘Do It With A Rockstar’, ‘Want It Back’ – that can’t help but convince. Catchy, spiky, knowing, each displays not only a musical dexterity but also a wonderful (and playful) appreciation of the rhyming couplet: I’ve got a picture of your mum / before the war when she was young. Or: Do you want to see all my cavities? / talk about the crisis in the Middle East?
Theatre is Evil has been on heavy, heavy rotation on the LGM turntable since my vinyl copy was shipped from Kentucky (of all places). Self-released, and significant for being the most eagerly-subscribed record funded via Kickstarer, this is an LP that swots away any doubts via the sheer force of its own conviction. It’s one of those rare examples in which the femininity is both exposed and celebrated, subverting the phallus-centric vibe of so much boy music in such a way as to want us to say “thank you”. Those nasty or snide remarks I’ve made about Amanda Palmer? I utterly and sincerely retract every last one of them; this album is fucking great.
Amanda Palmer / The Killing Type
Amanda Palmer / Do It With A Rockstar
#3. The Magnetic Fields / Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
Sassy, bitchy, sarcastic, narcissistic, cloyingly decadent – fuck, I love The Magnetic Fields. After three guitar-focused albums, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea sees us return to the synth-orientated aesthetic of their earlier material. And what a glorious return it is, Stephin Merritt re-entering the arena like a corrupt Roman Emperor, carried aloft by a retinue of geeks, nerds, buff boys, fag hags and all those who adore a deliciously spiky tune (this is a complement – honest).
Confession: sometimes I feel like I have to justify the records I adore – not to you, dear reader, but to my own understanding of what it means to be a music fetishist, lest I grow bloated and complacent and fritter away my pocket money on shit that doesn’t matter (this is a record geek’s affliction; there’s no need to empathise). And then along comes an album that by virtue of its sheer infectiousness, blows any (admittedly ridiculous) self-doubt out of the water. I think that’s why any Magnetic Fields release is so important; such is the acute shazam behind the songcraft that, regardless if its Merritt or Claudia Gonson on vocal duties, you can’t help but become snared. There’s a timeless quality underpinning each track, framing contemporary notions and matters of the heart in waves of wit and verve and tenderness. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea – simply engaging.
The Magnetic Fields / Andrew In Drag
The Magnetic Fields / Infatuation (With Your Gyration) (YouTube link)
#2. Godspeed You! Black Emperor / ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
From the reams of prose expounded on this record, it’s easy to perceive post-rock, math-rock, call it what you will, as a rapidly moving target. Parameters stretched, redefined with each passing nuance, with every subsequent release-borne push at the structure of things. And because it’s been ten long years since GY!BE (or however they’re arranging their exclamation marks these days) last released an album – the complex and gauche Yanqui UXO – certain considerations of this record focus upon that period of sabbatical, defining it almost as a weakness. Don’t be fooled – the topography behind ‘Allelujah! is astonishing. Lavish, arresting, constant hits of pure adrenalin, mainlined. Four tracks; two giant canvases, twenty minutes in length, reflected against two minimalistic, finely-balanced drone fugues (the vinyl edition comes on LP, 7”, and precise instructions on how to play).
This challenges the mechanics of record reviewing. There’s so much here there’s the requirement for a thesaurus – and even then the words feel like a pale imitation of the listening experience. Because you come away invigorated and exhausted when the needle hits the run out groove, exposed to sound as if it’s radiation, the sheer density coating your eardrums for days afterwards (it also sends my dog a little crazy, which I think works as a sign of approval). If there’s any truth in the expression that writing about music is the equivalent to dancing about architecture (ie pointless), ‘Allelujah! comes closest to leaving me speechless.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Mladic